BY BRIAN LIBBY
My trek began at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge, where a massive new public art installation marks the arrival of Portland's newest streetcar line along Grand Avenue, Broadway and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The artwork by Lead Pencil Studio, called "Inversion: Plus Minus," is multiple stories tall and evokes the form of a warehouse that used to stand there, a kind of ghost building.
The streetcar, conversely, is all about the future - but with a degree of negative space not unlike Lead Pencil Studio's installation. The streetcar is part transit and part development tool, with city planners and transportation specialists hoping the new line will transform the surface parking lots and strip mall-like storefronts the same way it helped turn the Pearl District from industrial to mixed-use urban.
Riding the streetcar north on Grand, I was surprised by how instantly this familiar stretch of roadway unfolded freshly before my eyes. Streetcars may cost more, but they make for a much more pleasant ride. I was seeing Grand almost like a tourist, getting a kind of second first impression.
Yet the view was also, somehow, disappointing. What seemed to stand out as much as the occasional clusters of historic two and three-story storefront buildings was the preponderance of surface parking lots and low-density suburban style developments of single-story buildings oriented towards their parking lots. Then there's the street itself, with enough lanes to move cars but making for a less inviting pedestrian environment. Grand and MLK are not just streets, of course, but the two halves of Highway 30. Just as on Powell Boulevard, which acts as Highway 26 on the east side, it's hard to create an urban setting that encourages mixed-use development when you also have three car lanes going in each direction.
So in other words, riding the eastside streetcar was a reminder of just how much the areas in its path still feel to a large degree like suburban enclaves.
Portland eastside streetcar (video by Brian Libby)
That's all the more true along the Broadway portion of the streetcar line between the MLK/Grand corridor and the Broadway Bridge to the west, on which it travels over the river. This stretch would seem to be ideally situated for development. There's already a vibrant retail cluster along Broadway just east of here, there's the Lloyd Center mall a few blocks to the southeast and the Rose Quarter's two arenas just the the southwest. Save for the massive Broadway Toyota dealership, this stretch of NE Broadway west of MLK and Grand is largely a wasteland of surface parking lots.
Part of the problem may be the freeway. Despite offering this area easy access, the trench Interstate 5 makes through this area sucks the life out of pedestrian-scaled development. Luckily there are alterations to the freeway scheduled in coming years, including a partial capping that will add a few blocks of real estate.
Perhaps the biggest waste and, thus, the biggest opportunity, lies in the Rose Quarter and the stretch of Broadway (and thus the streetcar line itself) forming its northern edge alongside the Rose Garden arena and Memorial Coliseum. It's a natural for some mix of ground-floor retail with apartments and condos, offices and hotels to occupy the Rose Quarter's northern edge, where surface parking and two parking garages now stand. If more of that parking could be buried underground, the land could become better utilized with higher-density architecture and open space.
Besides this streetcar ride, I also happened to visit the Rose Quarter a few days ago right at 5:00PM. Although the development's southern edge was a beehive of activity thanks to the transit center there, the area around the Rose Quarter's two parking garages and the outdoor plazas outside the arenas could not have been more empty. That needs to change, not by tearing down Memorial Coliseum but by activating the Rose Quarter with foothills to the two mountains: with high-density buildings complimenting the two arenas and driving daily activity.
And yet, change is coming. Along streets intersecting Grand and MLK, such as Couch Street, there are new apartment buildings. Moving further north towards the Lloyd District, there is increasing density too. The real estate economy has finally begun to recover, and central-city land along a streetcar line ought to be of increasing interest.
Certainly there are other canvases for urban development in Portland, be it in Northwest Portland south of Vaughn near 23rd Avenue or in the Zidell Yards near South Waterfront. But the cluster of land and neighborhoods comprising the Oregon Convention Center, the Rose Quarter, the Lloyd District and Broadway feel destined, in the long run, to constitute a kind of second downtown: the densest part of the city east of the river.
Riding the streetcar east across the Broadway Bridge and then picking up a return train back along Northeast Broadway, the strangest part of the trip was when the train abandoned its logical course: instead of making a right onto MLK and heading south, the path continues east along Broadway so it can head south for a few blocks along Seventh Avenue.
In a development sense it seemed understandable, for this stretch of Seventh, unlike the areas just a few blocks away, is under-utilized. But the streetcar as a means of travel is already painfully slow. To create a detour in such a heavy-handed way just to expand the development opportunity of a few more blocks felt like the tail wagging the dog. It's one thing to spend more on streetcars than buses with the notion that they encourage pedestrian-scale development. But even just a few blocks' detour is dangerously close to a tipping point where it's almost faster to walk.
During my ride on a late Tuesday morning, the cars were never full but never empty either. Since the line opened a few months ago, sometimes while biking I've seen streetcars on Grand and MLK with scarcely few passengers, but the same might have been said of the streetcar lines downtown when they first opened. In time, they will become full.
Besides, the fullness of the cars seemed to be not a reflection of success or failure for this new streetcar line, but a kind of ongoing referendum on whether we've made Grand, MLK and Broadway -- three of the most prominent arterial roads on the inner east side of the city -- the kind of places we want them to be.
And just as the artwork marking the beginning of my streetcar ride seemed to mark just a partial silhouette of the past, today that higher-density, more vibrant urban future for these streets and settings, if that's their destiny, can only partially be glimpsed. We can't depend entirely on the streetcar to take us there, and certainly not to do it quickly, but hopefully this investment will validate the ticket there.